Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 28, 2013

Syria and Israel Lobby Conspiracy Theories

Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

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Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

Apparently for the editors of Politico, the lack of a concerted effort on the part of pro-Israel groups either in favor of or against intervention in Syria is like the dog that doesn’t bark in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you start thinking in Walt-Mearsheimer terms in which everything revolves around Israel, then the absence of pro-Israel groups in a debate must seem suspicious or at least odd. But there’s nothing unusual about neutrality on Syria, especially since the Jewish state has good reason to distrust both sides in the civil war and will probably suffer if the U.S. attacks.

It may be a shock to some to think that Israel’s friends don’t have a vested interest in every issue on the table. Groups like AIPAC do speak out on topics like aid to Egypt (which is directly related to maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel) or strengthening ties to moderate Arab nations like Jordan. But Israel doesn’t directly figure in calculations about Syria or most questions between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim nations.

If anything, events of the last few years in which Arab Spring protests and rebellions have debunked the long-cherished view of Israel’s critics that holds that the conflict with the Palestinians is the central issue around which all conflicts revolve in the Middle East. That’s a concept that those heavily influenced by the Walt-Mearsheimer canard have a tough time wrapping their brains around. But those willing to subscribe to conspiracy theories in which Israel provides the explanation for every mystery and misery on the planet now find themselves searching for an Israel angle about Syria. But other than the fact that Israel will be blamed for the outcome no matter what happens, there is none. Conspiracy theorists and their journalistic enablers need to move on.

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The FBI and the War on the NYPD and Counter-Terrorism

This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denounced as fiction allegations in an Associated Press article published today that the NYPD “labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations” in order to spy on imams and members without any prior proof of wrongdoing. Kelly said the piece’s purpose was to “hype a book” that the authors of the article have written. He went on to insist that the federal judiciary has specifically authorized the activities of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit. Moreover, Kelly hinted that the agenda the AP reporters and their book is furthering is not so much one of innocent Muslims or the ACLU but that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is still angry that the NYPD had been allowed to poach on their territory and work on counter-terrorism rather than ordinary police work.

Indeed, even a quick reading of today’s AP piece, which is more or less a summary of many previous articles on the subject, indicates that although many of the official sources remain unidentified, the FBI’s fingerprints are all over what must be viewed as a hatchet job on the NYPD. But though this sort of federal-local rivalry is the stuff of numerous Law and Order episodes, the stakes in this dispute are bigger than even the egos of the personalities involved. At the heart of the tussle is the plain fact that after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD felt that they could no longer play by the old rules of engagement that had led to the murder of thousands of New Yorkers at the hands of Islamist terrorists. Instead, they got to work investigating not only al-Qaeda imports but also the very real threat of homegrown Islamist terror.

The NYPD has come under a steady barrage of criticism for using its resources to seek out potential terror suspects in exactly the places where they are known to congregate: religious institutions led by people who encourage support for extreme Islamist views. While the FBI has chosen to avoid flack by treating Islamists with kid gloves, the NYPD did their job. The AP’s hit pieces should be viewed in the context of a long campaign by many in the liberal mainstream media to falsely assert that there has been a post-9/11 backlash of discrimination against American Muslims. But more than that, it is also part of an effort to demonize counter-terrorism work at a time when paranoia about government spying fed by the controversy over the National Security Agency is running high. But while many in Congress and the media are feeding the spirit of complacency about terror, Kelly has rightly tried to remind us that efforts such as those of the NYPD are all that stands between the nation and new atrocities.

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This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denounced as fiction allegations in an Associated Press article published today that the NYPD “labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations” in order to spy on imams and members without any prior proof of wrongdoing. Kelly said the piece’s purpose was to “hype a book” that the authors of the article have written. He went on to insist that the federal judiciary has specifically authorized the activities of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit. Moreover, Kelly hinted that the agenda the AP reporters and their book is furthering is not so much one of innocent Muslims or the ACLU but that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is still angry that the NYPD had been allowed to poach on their territory and work on counter-terrorism rather than ordinary police work.

Indeed, even a quick reading of today’s AP piece, which is more or less a summary of many previous articles on the subject, indicates that although many of the official sources remain unidentified, the FBI’s fingerprints are all over what must be viewed as a hatchet job on the NYPD. But though this sort of federal-local rivalry is the stuff of numerous Law and Order episodes, the stakes in this dispute are bigger than even the egos of the personalities involved. At the heart of the tussle is the plain fact that after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD felt that they could no longer play by the old rules of engagement that had led to the murder of thousands of New Yorkers at the hands of Islamist terrorists. Instead, they got to work investigating not only al-Qaeda imports but also the very real threat of homegrown Islamist terror.

The NYPD has come under a steady barrage of criticism for using its resources to seek out potential terror suspects in exactly the places where they are known to congregate: religious institutions led by people who encourage support for extreme Islamist views. While the FBI has chosen to avoid flack by treating Islamists with kid gloves, the NYPD did their job. The AP’s hit pieces should be viewed in the context of a long campaign by many in the liberal mainstream media to falsely assert that there has been a post-9/11 backlash of discrimination against American Muslims. But more than that, it is also part of an effort to demonize counter-terrorism work at a time when paranoia about government spying fed by the controversy over the National Security Agency is running high. But while many in Congress and the media are feeding the spirit of complacency about terror, Kelly has rightly tried to remind us that efforts such as those of the NYPD are all that stands between the nation and new atrocities.

As Kelly said:

“We have an agreement that has been authorized by a federal judge,” Kelly answered. “We follow that stipulation to the letter, and it authorizes us to do a whole series of things. Certainly investigations are part of it. We follow leads wherever they take us. We’re not intimidated as to where that lead takes us.”

Yet that is exactly what the NYPD and the anti-anti-terror lobby led by those who claim to speak for American Muslims and civil liberties extremists want.

The point of the AP piece is to portray the police investigations as a threat to the freedom of religion and the First Amendment protections that would theoretically protect sermons or other activities at mosques from any scrutiny. But the idea that the Constitution allows people to preach violence or to create places where potential terrorists are inspired or given guidance with impunity is absurd. If some religious institutions have come under such scrutiny it is because the NYPD has had a reasonable suspicion that such activities have taken place there. To treat any such investigations as inherently prejudicial not only ignores the duty of the police to follow criminals to their source but also ignores the reality that radical Islamists have found a foothold on our shores.

While I have little doubt that the actions of Kelly and the NYPD will be upheld in the courts against suits brought by critics of their policies, what their opponents are shooting for is just as important as a legal victory: the delegitimization of counter-terrorism work that is willing to address the problem of domestic Islamist terror. That is the agenda pursued by some Arab and Muslim groups that have even counseled their members not to cooperate with the authorities when they investigate terror cases.

But it is even more troubling to see that the FBI is willing to help this cause via leaks and prejudicial anonymous quotes whose purpose is to pursue their rivalry with the NYPD. It should be remembered that such turf wars was one of the principle causes of the failure of the FBI and other authorities in the 9/11 case. To see the FBI revert to this sort of lamentable behavior now in order to settle scores with the NYPD is nothing less than a tragedy.

The NYPD deserves the applause and the gratitude of the city as well as the people of the country as a whole for their sterling work that has served to ferret out potential and actual terror plots. Kelly is resolute in his determination that on his watch, those trusted with defending the safety of New Yorkers will not revert to the sort of September 10th mentality that has characterized many of those who wish to pretend there is no such thing as Islamist terror. We can only hope that the next mayor of New York will empower him and his successors to keep up the good fight to keep the city and the nation safe.

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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

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One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.

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1963 to 2013: Obama Was Judged By the Content of His Character

Today’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will feature an address by President Obama. As such, we should have some sympathy for the president. Being asked to give a speech commemorating one of the most famous speeches in American history is an unenviable task. Like someone going to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s address, no matter what you say, you’re bound to come up short in comparison to the original. But no matter how pedestrian our current great orator’s words sound when placed in juxtaposition to King’s words, the president’s presence on the podium will have greater significance than anything he says. There is, after all, no more powerful argument about how different the America of 2013 is from that of 1963 than the fact that the president of the United States today is an African-American.

There is no small irony in this since the president, his supporters and, indeed, most of what is left of what we still call the civil-rights movement have spent the last several months attempting to argue that whatever progress has been made, racism is still endemic in American society. Though the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial was a confusing case involving a Hispanic man claiming self-defense, liberals seeking to recapture the ancient struggle for civil rights inflated it into a rerun of the Emmitt Till murder. Commonsense voter ID laws supported by most African-Americans have been branded by no less a figure than the attorney general of the United States (also now a black man) into a new version of the despicable Jim Crow laws that motivated the 1963 march. But the reality of the Obama presidency gives the lie to these false charges. Though contemporary America is neither perfect nor free of individual racists, Obama is the realization of King’s dream.

If there is one thing that we know about our country today it is that in November 2008 and November 2012, it judged a black man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

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Today’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will feature an address by President Obama. As such, we should have some sympathy for the president. Being asked to give a speech commemorating one of the most famous speeches in American history is an unenviable task. Like someone going to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s address, no matter what you say, you’re bound to come up short in comparison to the original. But no matter how pedestrian our current great orator’s words sound when placed in juxtaposition to King’s words, the president’s presence on the podium will have greater significance than anything he says. There is, after all, no more powerful argument about how different the America of 2013 is from that of 1963 than the fact that the president of the United States today is an African-American.

There is no small irony in this since the president, his supporters and, indeed, most of what is left of what we still call the civil-rights movement have spent the last several months attempting to argue that whatever progress has been made, racism is still endemic in American society. Though the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial was a confusing case involving a Hispanic man claiming self-defense, liberals seeking to recapture the ancient struggle for civil rights inflated it into a rerun of the Emmitt Till murder. Commonsense voter ID laws supported by most African-Americans have been branded by no less a figure than the attorney general of the United States (also now a black man) into a new version of the despicable Jim Crow laws that motivated the 1963 march. But the reality of the Obama presidency gives the lie to these false charges. Though contemporary America is neither perfect nor free of individual racists, Obama is the realization of King’s dream.

If there is one thing that we know about our country today it is that in November 2008 and November 2012, it judged a black man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

We may not have arrived at a completely color-blind utopia yet, but Obama’s election and his reelection demonstrated that Jim Crow is dead once and for all. Whites may have been prepared to tolerate blacks in the 1960s or even to give them equality. But in the last five years they have twice shown that they were willing to vote for one for president.

An intellectually bankrupt left and civil-rights groups that long ago lost their way may cling to the idea that little or nothing has changed. Their struggle should have been transformed into one that sought to address the breakdown of the black family and other social pathologies (fed in no small part by the growth of a well-intentioned welfare state in the wake of the passage of historic civil-rights laws) long ago. But instead they cling to the notion that white racism is the problem. In doing so they have perpetuated division rather than seeking to erase it.

One of the main reasons Obama was elected and then reelected in spite of a first term filled with failure was that his presence in the White House corrected a great historic injustice and made Americans feel good about themselves. This may be frustrating for Obama’s critics, but it is altogether understandable. It should also cause those speaking today at the Lincoln Memorial to ponder just how different America is today from the one where King dreamed such a thing might be possible. Instead of decrying America’s failings today, the president and others who speak should be celebrating just how much we have achieved. Barack Obama is the embodiment of American progress. Let us hope he spends today and the rest of his time in the White House fulfilling his promises to try and bring us together rather than working, as he has done, to keeping old, dead, and hurtful fights alive.

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Arabs Give Obama the Bush Treatment

There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

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There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.

Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.

Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.

What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.

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The Case for a Presidential Address on Syria

Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

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Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

The president no doubt has seen the polling. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found that: “About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.” A coalition of the willing starts at home, and nine percent is not encouraging. But there’s a silver lining. As the AP reported in a roundup of Syria polling, “The Pew Research Center has tracked public attention to news about the conflict in Syria since May 2011, and has consistently found most Americans are tuned out. Each time they’ve asked, a majority said they were not following closely.”

The question is whether there is anything Obama can do to change their minds. The answer is yes–he’s already done it, to an extent. As the Washington Post reported in December, Obama had been personally opposed to intervening in the Syria civil war but in August 2012 set Syrian chemical weapons use as his “red line.” Wouldn’t you know it, four months later a poll found a majority of Americans opposed intervention in Syria–unless the regime used chemical weapons. Then all bets were off, and suddenly support for military action in Syria went from 17 percent to 63 percent.

Perhaps the American public had coincidentally formed their own opinion of what constitutes a red line in Syria independent of the president. But that’s unlikely. What seems to have happened is that Americans weren’t following the conflict closely but set their conditions for involvement precisely as the president had. The point here is not only that the crossing of the red line is likely to change at least a few minds. It’s that the public has shown both that it is not paying close attention to Syria and that it broadly trusts Obama’s judgment on American action. The opportunity, then, for Obama to build support for action the administration seems intent on taking is staring the president in the face.

Whether or not the president thinks Reddit AMAs and Twitter town halls are the way to reach young Americans, on matters of war and peace a serious address in a serious setting is the way to get Americans’ attention, and it will almost surely get results. As I wrote last year, when discussing the efficacy of presidential rhetoric it’s important to make a distinction between foreign and domestic policy. I noted that Obama has experienced this as well. Like past presidents, he has had difficulty selling the public on major domestic reforms, but also like his predecessors, he has had much more success selling the public on the deployment of American military forces. The president is the commander in chief, and the public treats him that way. Obama, after all, won a nine-percent jump in public support for the war in Afghanistan after his announcement of a troop surge there.

Additionally, while it’s true that the country is war weary and that there are those in Congress just itching to vote against more foreign intervention, Obama is underestimating the support he would have. He should go to Congress for approval; he’d get it. That will at least somewhat insulate him from charges of warmongering or recklessness, and certainly of partisanship or double standards. And he should address the American people, make the case for his desired course of action, and ask for their support. If past is prologue, he’ll get that too.

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What Will the Syria Strikes Accomplish?

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

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Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

The amount of damage that will be done, if only Tomahawk cruise missiles are used, will be strictly limited since they carry relatively small warheads of 260-370 pounds, compared with 500-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and even 15,000-pound bombs (the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”) that can be carried by aircraft. The use of airdropped munitions can make it possible to penetrate bunkers and incinerate chemical weapons stockpiles without risking the dispersion of the deadly weapons. And even if aircraft were to be employed, they would have to bomb for considerable periods to achieve any strategic effects–witness the 78 days of bombing of Kosovo in 1999 or the even longer bombing of Libya in 2011.

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

Similar strikes would likely have a similar effect in Syria: It would convince Bashar Assad, and a lot of other people in the region, that he successfully defied the superpower. It could have, in other words, the effect of enhancing Assad’s aura of power–precisely the opposite of what Obama intends.

The U.S. goal in Syria, as enunciated by no less than the president himself, is to topple Assad and to end the suffering created by the Syrian civil war. That will not be achieved with cruise missiles. It will require months of bombing, combined with the arming, training, and coordination of rebel forces. Even a lesser goal of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles–a reasonable objective given the strategic threat posed by WMD–would require weeks of bombing combined with commando raids. A few days of cruise missile strikes, by contrast, will only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.

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Why Is Obama Leaking Syria Plans?

After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

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After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

It bears repeating that if the point of any such strikes is to hold Assad accountable, then a limited number of missile strikes on Syrian army targets that will neither topple the dictator (a goal that has been repeatedly endorsed and predicted by President Obama) or cripple his ability to go on committing atrocities doesn’t exactly fit the bill. If the strikes are what we are being led to expect, then what we are in store for is a noisy and dramatic version of a diplomatic note expressing American indignation.

As I noted yesterday, if the president doesn’t finish what he starts this week in Syria, it’s not clear there will be any real gains from the use of so many expensive military weapons. No matter how carefully this legion of Washington leakers spins the attacks, wars have a way of spinning out of the control of their planners. Should the U.S. strikes lead to missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, as that terrorist group’s Iranian masters warn, then the situation will turn out to be more complicated than the president thinks.

Just as dangerous is the likelihood that if Assad is still standing once the dust settles from a few days of limited U.S. attacks, America’s credibility will be in even worse shape than it is now. If a few weeks from now, the regime is not only still in place but still winning its war with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, the president’s limited Syrian war will be seen as an empty gesture. Such an outcome would be a metaphor for a failed policy that will have serious implications for efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in that light, rather than worrying so much about reassuring Americans that he doesn’t intend to do much in Syria, the president should be concerned about the implications of an episode that will be viewed as a metaphor for foreign-policy disaster.

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Special Preview: Fifty Years After the March

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

On August 28, 1963, a quarter million Americans staged the most important demonstration in our nation’s history. They marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in what is now remembered primarily as the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was much more than that. The speech was epochal precisely because the event culminated the civil-rights “revolution” that put an end to the dark era of racial segregation and open discrimination.

Growing up in an activist household, I was, although just shy of 16, already a seasoned protester, having for example first seen Washington when my parents took me to the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, a prequel to the 1963 march. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I now found myself in the role of coordinator of two old yellow school buses bringing marchers from Harlem to Washington. As we prepared for the nighttime drive to the capital, the sense of anticipation in the air along 125th Street was not limited to those who would make the journey. In a late-night drugstore, I assembled the contents of a first-aid kit for each bus, and when I told the clerks it was for the march, they cheered and refused to accept payment.

Continue reading this article…

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

On August 28, 1963, a quarter million Americans staged the most important demonstration in our nation’s history. They marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in what is now remembered primarily as the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was much more than that. The speech was epochal precisely because the event culminated the civil-rights “revolution” that put an end to the dark era of racial segregation and open discrimination.

Growing up in an activist household, I was, although just shy of 16, already a seasoned protester, having for example first seen Washington when my parents took me to the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, a prequel to the 1963 march. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I now found myself in the role of coordinator of two old yellow school buses bringing marchers from Harlem to Washington. As we prepared for the nighttime drive to the capital, the sense of anticipation in the air along 125th Street was not limited to those who would make the journey. In a late-night drugstore, I assembled the contents of a first-aid kit for each bus, and when I told the clerks it was for the march, they cheered and refused to accept payment.

Continue reading this article…

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